Interview: Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival

In April, Aminah was interviewed by the London office of the Lift-Off Global Network, following her screenplay award win at the Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival.

The interview was part of a larger article shared with private members of the Lift-Off Global Network. The interview was part of a larger article shared with members of the Network. Aminah was given permission to share an excerpt from the article with you. Transcript of her interview below!

***

How important is symbolism to you in your work?

Symbolism has become increasingly important in my work as I’ve taken this script into the feature version. I’ve paid a lot of attention to mise en scene, the appearance of small objects and been very particular about the use of colour. All of these elements communicate where a character is at in their emotional journey.

How do you feel about the premise of constantly increasing the stakes in a script?

I think it’s quite important to establish the stakes as part of the world building in Act I, way before they might be seen to affect the protagonist. Then when things start to build during the story, a lot of what’s at stake is already set up. It’s easier to focus on the character’s journey when the audience already has an understanding of the general stakes within the paradigm. You can then add blocks on top of that, as to how the events affect your character in a more personal sense. The stakes increasing for the protagonist makes things more interesting for sure. I believe the phrase is, “punish the hell out of them in Act II.” The more obstacles the protagonist overcomes, the more triumph and relief is felt by the audience when they head into the resolution.

How often do you feel your script changes naturally by itself? As in characters or scenes evolving by themselves without you giving it too much thought.

This happens more than I would have expected. I’ve found that when I settle into the particular headspace I need for that story, I get into a flow. I start to feel as though I’m watching the movie in my mind as I’m writing. Even when I have a strong outline, I’m sometimes surprised by certain images or actions or dialogue that occur. It’s perhaps a case of letting go of left-brain logistics and the need to control the narrative and allowing the creative, right side of the brain to take over for a while and seeing what unfolds. And enjoying it!

What is your take on using flash-backs in a script?

I think flashbacks are an incredibly useful tool. They can be overdone and I would avoid using too many of them in a regular drama where, as a viewer, I personally want to stay in the present story. Having said that, I’ve used them a lot in my current work in progress, as it’s about trauma recovery. I use flashbacks as a vehicle to deepen understanding of how often a trauma survivor lives with triggers and to show that they’re not always dramatic and debilitating, they’re just part of the fabric of everyday life. I like to use flashbacks that don’t tell the full story but that offer a window into macro moments, where the full story will be revealed later in the film. I’m not into spoon feeding at all.

Do you ever feel pressured to write a story based on the current affairs of what is going on in the world?

I don’t feel pressured to write any kind of story. However, I do feel passionate about drawing attention to particular issues that I care about. I don’t know that I’m interested in doing it in a way that is so blatant as to focus on a particular current event because that instantly dates a piece and may isolate an audience who aren’t interested in that event. Rather, I’m interested in telling a story that has a theme that echoes in the current moment and that may have echoes in a future moment. An allegory, I guess you could call it. My next feature is set in 1843 but its theme holds relevance now and I’m hoping that it will generate discussion around a particular issue.

How do you use the narrative devices of scripts (bold-words, underlining words, ellipsis, and beats) to show and not tell your actors/ director how you feel the script should be worked?

I don’t bold or underline anything. I rarely use beats. I try to space out action lines to create the right amount of space to show where moments of tension or emotion should be held. I use ellipses in dialogue occasionally where I’d like the actor to take pauses in their speech but I’m hesitant about doing even that. I’m also a director and have done some acting, so I generally try to avoid telling the director or actor how to create. I like to think I’d get to direct everything I write but I may not. I may be handing some of my scripts to somebody else. At the end of the day, they’re going to workshop the script in rehearsal, come up with seven different ways they want to play each scene and that’s their creative process. Thinking you can control that as a writer is – well, you can’t. So, don’t worry about it. Write the story. Communicate your vision as best you can and then let it go. What a director and actors do with it in the next stage is ultimately none of your business.

How do feel it is best to write your directives?

I personally like screenplays and characters that are able to communicate well without dialogue. Given that we are told as writers that we’re not supposed to put anything on the page that isn’t action or dialogue (never what the character is thinking), indicating emotional reactions can be tricky. So, if I feel that I’d like to see a character react to something without speaking, I revert back to my writing degree, which was in poetry and prose, and use the “show don’t tell” method. For example, if they’re disappointed:

“Dan looks out to the deck and sees Vivienne and Dina laughing together.

His shoulders sink.”

I use phrases like this as a placeholder, knowing that in practice the actor will express his disappointment whichever way he and the director decide is best for that scene. Given my background in directing and photography, I am a little sneaky, however, with camera direction. I have learnt to suggest shots by using the “anchoring images” technique, which I learnt from Script Reader, David Wappel, which basically involves drawing the reader’s eye to a particular object or image in the frame.

How do you find nuance in your story? Your characters feel very real and honest, what do you do to get into that headspace?

Thank you. I think about my characters as though they’re three-dimensional beings who experience the full gamut of human emotion. I sometimes picture a particular actor when I’m writing, or a person I’ve known. And whatever we’re writing, we’ve all felt the emotions of all of those moments. I’ve never forgotten hearing someone say, twenty years ago, that people are full of contradictions, so all of the best characters are too. One dimensional characters are boring. Even the villains in superhero movies struggle with their conscience from time to time.

What do you try to focus on when tackling “taboo” issues that are difficult in a script?

Tell the truth, boldly, without apology. It’s scary. Sometimes my hands shake. Sometimes it’s hard to

breathe. Sometimes I write a scene, cry and I’m done for the day. But I am tired of the alternative. Our narratives have been controlled by others for too long. We need to tell our stories. Inside of writing, pick up a sword and shield and tell the truth. Outside of writing, the focus needs to be on self-care.

I know you are a very proactive person, how do you work this in with your writing?

Sleep? I’ll sleep when I’m de-

Yes, it can be challenging. My calendar is insane. Colour-coordinated, full, busy, I have to schedule in time to eat dinner or I forget. I tried this year to have a routine – dedicated days for admin, marketing, writing, studying craft, music – but in reality, when I have a project on and deadlines, all planning goes out the window. I’m constantly pushing things back. I had a few months of sporadically outlining my feature in between other work and then I eventually had to clear my schedule, sit down and write it in two weeks, in order to meet a deadline. I wouldn’t recommend writing that way. It was intense. I’m still learning how to build more blank space into my schedule, more down time, more rest time. At the moment it seems impossible. I keep dreaming about Hawaii. I’ll get there.